Kalb was not one to stick spies and cutthroats around the royal family without them knowing of it. So, he quickly came up with excuses for me to happen across the royal couple at different places over the next few hours. Or, rather, I should say that he’d already planned for them ahead of time, fully expecting my cooperation. I’d say that was presumptuous of him, but he knew me well.
The meetings were deftly managed, with each one happening without any pomp or circumstance. It was done in such a way that it didn’t seem as if I were an understudy or assistant to him, so others wouldn’t take note of me traveling around the palace with him. Rather, it was more like he was introducing them to a new tool they would have at their disposal. He simply told me when and where to meet him, and he had things arranged beforehand to work out.
We met first with Emperor Baraz, as was only right. He’d been a prominent figure in my childhood, even before I knew his position. After all, he’d been the one who had broken up the joyous first meeting I’d had with Nokomi all those years ago. His soldiers and Kalb had stumbled across me bleeding on his daughter in that alley, standing over the corpse of the dead desert cat. I’d fled and hid safely away that time. My second meeting with Nokomi and Kalb had not ended with another escape.
The Emperor had changed little since I’d last seen him, though I could only count our meetings on one hand. He still dressed more like a general than a king. He wore fine clothes, but he wore them in a simple military fashion. Even the expensive sword buckled at his waist was a functional weapon, one he knew very well how to use, I’d heard. As of yet, I’d never seen him draw and use his sword, though he had offered it to me once to execute a fellow student at the Kennel. In the end, I’d used my own teeth and claws to kill him instead, avenging a friend and pack member whose dog had been murdered.
The Emperor was a man used to avoiding small talk. He had always been about business when I’d seen him. I imagined he had softer moments when he was alone amongst family, but it was difficult to imagine him being anything but the rigid, imposing leader I saw before me now.
We met him in a library, of all places. I knew how to read, but did not relish in it, unless it happened to be orders detailing a particularly favorable new assignment back at the palace.
The Emperor’s library was an immaculate, richly-outfitted hall with row upon row of glowing reddish shelves, all stuffed with carefully labeled scrolls and books. A few attendants hovered near the entrances, maintaining their posts in silence, waiting to be called to assist in finding a specific material. The Emperor was leaning over a table, reviewing a large scroll that he’d spread across the table. Kalb arrived from the south door, and I approached from the east just moments after him.
Emperor Baraz did not look up as we approached and took our places across the table from him. My eyes roamed across the scroll, actually a map detailing troop positions and border garrisons. I recognized several areas I’d been, where the dog soldiers and I had shifted some of those lines in our kingdom’s favor. This one was more up-to-date than the last I’d seen, I assumed.
After clenching his jaw and frowning at the map, the Emperor looked up at us. He nodded briefly to Kalb and Teeth before looking over and Dog and me. What he saw when he looked at us, I could not tell, but he certainly knew who we were. We’d left quite an impression on him when he’d seen us shift into the beastlike creature we’d become to kill Drum, the boy at the Kennel. Even in the years since, on the rare chances we’d crossed each other’s paths, he still had a guarded look about him when he looked upon us.
“Captain Goren, returned from the border.” Baraz said smoothly. A significant look passed between him and Kalb. He clearly knew the reasons behind our return.
“Sir.” I bowed deeply. Dog actually lowered his eyes to the floor, too.
Baraz shook his head. “It is still so strange to see the two of you together. I’d always thought Kalb to be something special, and yet here you are. Here we are. The things we’ve done together, they’ve built a stronger nation. Our borders are secure. My lineage is secure.”
“And we wish to keep it that way.” Kalb said warily. Teeth growled deep in his throat.
“Vigilance… I know.” Baraz nodded. “Things are about to get more difficult from here out. I am glad to have someone else I can trust, someone that Kalb trusts to keep an extra eye on my family. There is no duty more important that I could ask of either of you.”
I lowered my head again in a slight bow, not knowing what else to say or do.
“Go with my blessing, and do Kalb’s will. Listen to him, learn from him, and protect my family.” Baraz dismissed us with that, going back to his map and a smaller scroll, where he scratched notes with a quilled pen.
I did not bother him with a response, empty words about doing my best or seeing to it. Instead, I bowed stiffly at the waist and retreated from the room, exiting from the same way I’d come in.
We met with the Emperor’s wife, Empress Anahita, next. She was someone I’d never met. I’d seen statues and paintings of her, but I did not know what to expect. Baraz was such a hard man, and Nokomi was like a breath of fresh air to me. What sort of woman could handle the Emperor and produce a daughter such as Nokomi? I found myself looking forward to the meeting.
This second meeting was in a private garden, one nestled between the palace and the royal residence. As I made my way there from the expansive halls of the palace building, the royal residence came into view. It was a giant domed building with a second dome built atop it. The lower dome was broad and wide, with a shallow incline to its ribbed roof. The upper dome was smaller and more steeply rounded, built with sparkling copper tiles that glittered like snake scales. That second dome was topped with a modest turret and a flag bearing the arms of the royal family: a flame at the center of two crossed swords set upon a red field.
At the four corners of this large residence were towers, each attached at an ordinal direction. The nearest of these towers to me was the northwest tower, which was topped with a bell-shaped structure painted in blue. I could see the southwestern tower further away, that one topped in green. Between these towers was the Empress’ private garden, but to get to that, one had to pass through another set of walls.
As I’ve said before, the palace was a series of walls within walls, each one more exclusive than the last. To get to the royal family, you had to pass through several checkpoints, and this was no different. Kalb had given me a pass, an engraved metal signet I could show when needed. I wore it on a chain around my neck, as I was not going to start wearing rings. Rings might very well cause serious difficulties if I were to bring out my beast, perhaps even slicing off a finger.
With the signet, I was allowed beyond that wall. The guards silently let me by, but they carried themselves very professionally. These were some of the best I’d seen yet about the palace. One more gate brought me to the Empress’ gardens. Not just anyone was allowed in. The Empress would already know I was coming, or I’d not be permitted to enter.
Kalb was already there, sitting in a corner, far away from the action. He played with his dog, lavishing Teeth in a rare show of affection. His momentary display of youthfulness made it clear he would be ignoring the Empress and me as we spoke.
The Empress was unattended, surprisingly. There were not servants waiting to wipe her hands for her, to fetch her a cool drink, or to carry her on a sedan chair. It was just her in the garden, which was modest when compared to the palace courtyard, but not small by any means.
This garden, unlike the courtyard, made no attempt to be lush and verdant. No, this one was a testament to the harsh beauty of the desert. Instead of fish ponds and flowering shrubs that needed constant watering, this garden was filled with barrel-shaped cactuses and desert trees that needed little tending. This is not to say that they could not be beautiful. They could, certainly, but they hid their beauty, waiting for one of those rare rains, after which they would reveal their hidden treasures for those who happened to be patient enough to wait for them.
Empress Anahita stood beneath a tree I recognized as a myrrh tree. Its resin and sap could be collected and used in remedies or gathered for its scent. The bark was rough, and the tree was twisted and gnarled, but it had been artfully pruned and shaped.
I approached slowly, so as not to seem overly eager or to startle her, since she appeared lost in thought. Dog’s feet whispered across the sand beside me.
The Empress tilted her head up to look at the tree, smiled to herself, and turned to face us. So I was able to see her truly for the first time. I could see where Nokomi got her warm eyes. She had much of her mother in her, though her mother’s hair was thicker, falling in dark braids to her waist, which was swollen with child. She wore simple linen, but had no need for ornament, because she had one of the most stunning faces I’d ever beheld. Even though she was older than Nokomi, her face had aged well, offering a mature sort of grace that was only accentuated by her pregnant state. She radiated fertility and nobility, and the heat that came off her skin was noticeable from even a pace away. Fire-blooded indeed.
“Empress.” Dog sat at my feet, tongue lolling out as I bowed.
Strangely, faced with the Empress instead of the Emperor, Dog felt no compunction to offer any humility or show of submissiveness. Instead, he rolled over on his back and put his feet in the air, scratching his back happily on the sand. After sneezing once, he regained his feet and looked at me.
The Empress’ mouth quirked into a smile as she regarded Dog. “You are the boy and dog I have heard my husband say so much about over the years.”
I lifted my head and met her eyes briefly, noting genuine warmth within them. “I suppose I am, although I did not know he spoke of me at all or often.”
“Oh, get him and Kalb together, and you come up in conversation often enough. They have plans for you, Go, many of them. Plans and expectations.”
I smiled softly, pleased that she knew my real name. “And do you have plans of your own for me, Empress?” I inquired quietly.
She took a step over to me, reaching out her warm fingertips and touching me on the chin to lift my face until I stared back into her eyes. Her warm eyes flashed with inner light, reflecting the fire that ran through her veins. I felt a tremble of something inside me, something I could not put a name to.
“Women of have special powers, Go. We can do things that even the men cannot. Oh, my family may all have the fire within us, the ability to destroy, but only the women can create. Baraz is very good at what he does, conquering and holding on to what he has taken, but to truly keep it, he needs what I have inside of me.”
“Your son.” I whispered.
She smiled, letting my chin go finally. My skin felt feverish where she’d touched me, and the scar upon my forehead burned.
“He will be part of it, but we do not have a single child. Neema and Nokomi will be important if we are truly going to hold this land. They will have to make connections to secure our future. Do you know what that means?”
I said nothing, going very still. Dog whined at my side.
“They will marry, Go. They will take generals, or the richest merchants, or the sons of neighboring kings as consorts. We will cement ourselves into this place until you cannot remove our family from this land, because we will be the root of it. To do that, we have to connect.”
“And where do I fit in that?” I asked.
“Where indeed?” She placed her hands on her swollen belly and stepped back toward the tree, rubbing her fingers across the resin and bringing them to her nose.
“Nokomi will need someone beside her,” she said thoughtfully, “someone to keep her safe, to be her friend. Someone to help her navigate her way through her suitors.”
“Suitors?” The word tasted foul in my mouth. I hoped it did not show on my face.
“She will be meeting with those who wish to use her position for gain. I will have you there, a shadow watching over. You will report back to me what you think of them.”
“You want me to spy on your daughter when she meets these men who would marry her?” I didn’t know how I could remain loyal to Nokomi and spy upon her, but Kalb had insisted that I follow the orders of all of the royal family.
The Empress’ head swiveled my way. “You can do that, can’t you?”
“Yes, Empress.” I bowed my head. I would have to, no matter how little I liked it.
“Good. See to it.” She said it in a dismissive way, and I knew I was done with my audience. “And Go?” She called as I started off toward the gate I’d entered through.
I turned back. “Yes, Empress?”
“It was nice to meet you. Kalb has told me you are to be trusted, and I take his advice much to heart. Thank you for your service.”
I bowed deeply, and then hurried off. Kalb made no move to join me this time. I knew to head to my quarters then, and it was just as well. I wanted to be alone with Dog, to think.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs